Study: Existential isolation linked to increased death thought accessibility

New research published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that existential isolation — feeling alone in one’s experience and separate from other human beings — is related to higher levels of death-related cognitions.

“I have been continually interested in how individuals respond to existential concerns, that is, concerns of inevitable death, meaninglessness, freedom (and consequences) of choice, and inherent isolation,” said study author Peter Helm, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Missouri.

“Existential isolation in particular fascinates me because I believe there are numerous instances in our daily lives that can remind us of our inherent separation and yet there is almost no discussion of how this experience can have real repercussions. My broad program of research is aimed at uncovering the nature and consequences of feeling existentially isolated from others, and more broadly, how can we bridge the existential divide.”

In two surveys, which included a total of 1,545 introductory psychology students, the researchers found that feeling existentially isolated was associated with greater death thought accessibility.

Existential isolation was assessed by asking participants how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Other people usually do not understand my experiences.”

Death thought accessibility was measured with a word completion task, in which participants were asked to fill in the missing letters to various words. The completed words could be either death-related or neutral. For example, co__se could be completed as either course or corpse.

“This study is couched in the assumption that people have what researchers and clinicians might call ‘anxiety buffers.’ Anxiety buffers (such as self-esteem and faith in a cultural worldview) function to keep existential dread in check (i.e., the distressing feelings associated with pondering one’s inevitable death, the meaninglessness of life, etc),” Helm told PsyPost.

“These buffers are ultimately constructed and sustained via social validation – that the strength and perceived validity of our buffers depend, in part, on how much others in our social worlds agree that our worldviews are meaningful and justified.”

“Thus, one major takeaway is that experiences of existential isolation — having the feeling that other people in your social world do not, or cannot, understand your subjective experience — can actually weaken these buffers. Put differently, the experience of not feeling validated in your experience (i.e., feeling existentially isolated), appears to weaken our defensive buffers,” Helm explained.

“Another important take away, is that this study helps demonstrate that existential isolation is not just another form of loneliness. Certainly these two experiences are related, but they are not the same thing. Across all the studies reported in this paper existential isolation and loneliness do not produce the same effects.”

A follow-up experiment with 277 participants found that those primed with thoughts of existential isolation had higher death thought accessibility than participants primed with either loneliness or a neutral topic. But a second experiment of 92 participants failed the replicate these results — raising questions about the causal relationship between existential isolation and death thought accessibility.

“There are always caveats to research. One big one is that our observed effects were relatively small. While feeling existentially isolated was found to be consistently associated with a weaker or fragmented buffer, it appeared to only account for a small percent of the variance,” Helm said.

“Thus, while important, it is certainly not the whole picture. Another important caveat is that these studies were conducted with college students at a single university. It is entirely likely that other cultural settings, ages, etc. may produce different results.”

“That being said, this is among the first research studies examining how experiences of existential isolation can affect us. Thus while the generalizability of the study may be limited, it still offers (in my humble opinion) important information for future research,” Helm told PsyPost.

“I would love to see future research trying to uncover the mechanisms of exactly how feelings of existential isolation contribute to a weakening anxiety buffer. The proposed pathways examined in our studies produced mixed results, suggesting additional research is needed to better understand how and why this experience can be so threatening.”

“The subfield of experimental existential psychology is still fairly new and there are numerous questions that have yet to be addressed. This is particularly true for researchers studying the consequences of existential isolation,” Helm added.

“Over time, my hope is that research like this can help contribute to a more nuanced understanding of interpersonal relationships, and how individuals can feel validated and understood in an increasingly complex social world.”

The study, “Existential isolation and death thought accessibility“, was authored by Peter J. Helm, Uri Lifshin, Ronald Chau, and Jeff Greenberg.